Our journey to the Chola heartland began from Chennai, on the Tindivanam route, we could have taken the scenic ECR but we were a little wary of the traffic and our destination for the day was Kumbakonam.
Roads in Tamil Nadu have always been good, much better than the national average from as long as we remember, this time too, we cruised till Tindivanam, where we stopped for lunch at Vasantha Bhavan, the food was decent, nothing great to write home about. The highways to most cities from Chennai have good pit stops, there are good hotels near most important towns and one usually need not worry about food and washroom breaks.
A worthy successor to Chola pride
Great roads meant, we were nearing our destination well within time, the initial plan was to head to Kumbakonam, relax for the day and make a quick trip to Gangaikondacholapuram the next day. While nearing Kumbakonam, we realised we had lot of time on hand and Gangaikondacholapuram was enroute, so it would be a good idea to finish the visit.
This was the writer’s 2nd visit to this temple following a visit in 2009 but back then, we had reached the temple after closing hours and could only walk around the premises.
Gangaikondacholapuram, the names sounds grand, it means the “Chola city that won over Ganga”. What a proud name ! The name was given to the city by Rajendra Chola, the son of the greatest Chola, Raja Raja Chola I. After a victory march over the Ganga rulers, Rajendra Chola, the most powerful Chola king, expanded his kingdom all the way upto the Ganga region and beyond the seas upto Indonesia. He proudly named his new capital “Gangaikondacholapuram” and built a Brihadeeswara Temple there in 1035 A.D. The temple was supposed to be the grandest one ever built, surpassing Raja Raja Chola’s Thanjavur temple but Rajendra Chola, out of respect for his father’s achievement, decided to tone down the grandeur and size of his temple. UNESCO has listed this temple in its World Heritage Sites as the “The Great Living Chola temples”.
The Gangaikondacholapuram temple takes inspiration from the Thanjavur temple.
This is one inspired work that is as unique and magnificent as the original. Ruins of the Gopuram welcome you into the temple. How high was this gopuram supposed to be?
At the entrance, there is a huge Nandi, different in design from the Thanjavur Nandi, this one doesn’t have a sheltered Mandapa.
Facing the temple, the Nandi seems to be looking out for Lord Brihadeeswara’s orders.
A flight of stairs lead you to the entrance of the Sanctum which is guarded by two giant sized Dwarapalakas.
When you step inside the Mukha Mandapa, you are completely taken over by the massive pillars, ceiling and the dark interiors leading to the Sanctum, close your eyes and go back in time, 900 years, when the great kings walked through the chamber and visited the colossal Shiva Linga !
Unlike the Thanjavur temple, you can do a Pradakshina around the Garbhalayam, there is hardly any ventilation here, there is a mystic yet eerie feel, all at the sametime.
Step outside and crane your neck to see the Vimana. This one stands tall at 180 feet but is slightly smaller than the Thanjavur temple, designed that way as a mark of respect for the Senior Chola ! It is slightly curvy and broader than its predecessor, some call it the feminine version of the Thanjavur temple.
Did these great kings consider how difficult it would be to fit their gigantic temples into the camera lens? You may even end up with a stiff neck if you look at the Vimanas for too long !
Sculpture adorns the entire length and breadth of the Vimana and the walls.
On one of the walls is a sculpture of Rajendra Chola being crowned as king by Lord Shiva himself, this is an iconic sculpture of the Gangaikondacholapuram temple.
There are smaller shrines for other Deities, the architecture, again, follows the same pattern of the Thanjavur temple.
Take a walk around the well maintained temple premises to marvel at this architectural masterpiece. Here is a click of the temple in its full glory, as it stands today !
As you walk around you can see the Simhakeni or the Lion-well. It is supposed to be a well with the statue of a lion at the entrance.
The entrance has been closed now and the well is hardly visible.
Around the entire stretch of the temple, one can find raised platforms, these must have been the pillared mandapas surrounding the temple, the pillars are long gone. There is also a 2 storied structure, must be one of the ruined mandapas.
In 2009 trip to this temple, we climbed up the mandapa but now the steps looked very dilapidated and we didnt risk climbing them. Did the entire stretch have such structures originally? Such is the beauty of ruins, you can imagine and run your own stories and theories !
We didn’t realise that we had spent close to 2 hours at Gangaikondacholapuram, it was almost 6.15 PM when we decided it was time to leave. A few extra minutes went in clicking that one more picture of the temple.
The kings of the past strived hard to live up to the rich legacy they inherited and to leave behind a richer heritage than their predecessor. These kings, their monuments, their success and failures have all shaped our history and culture, do we have it in us to live up to the trail left behind by them?
It was 7.30 PM when we reached Kumbakonam and checked into our homestay before heading out for dinner – Dosa and Sambhar – this is one legacy we are sure to uphold with pride !
- Gangaikondacholapuram is 34 kms from Kumbakonam and about 70 kms from Thanjavur and 48 kms from Chidambaram. One can find buses from Kumbakonam and Thanjavur.
- The temple is open from 6 AM to 12 noon and again from 4 PM to 8 PM.
- Nearest city to find accommodation is Kumbakonam. Gangaikondacholapuram is a small village, except for a few stalls selling snacks, there are no good hotels. Washrooms are just about ok but one has to walk atleast a half a kilometre from the temple.
- If you have your own vehicle, you can get a little creative and try covering all three Great Living Chola temples in a day starting from Gangaikondacholpauram, Darasuram and Thanjavur.
- If you plan to visit Gangaikondacholapuram, include a trip to Kumbakonam temples also.
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